Laurence Sterne (1713-1768)

Plaque at No.35 Stonegate YO1 8AW

No. 35 Stonegate is also known for being the home and workshop of stained-glass artists J.W. Knowles and his son J.A. Knowles.

No. 35 Stonegate, ‘The Sign of the Bible’

John Hinxman’s bookshop at No. 35 Stonegate was the point from which Laurence Sterne’s game-changing novel Tristram Shandy exploded into the world in 1759. Eventually running to nine volumes, the comic masterpiece has remained in print and continues to influence new generations of novelists.

‘Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine; – & they are the life, the soul of reading; – take them out of this book for instance, – you might as well take the book along with them,’ writes Tristram Shandy in Laurence Sterne’s eponymous 1759 novel. The book is characterised by, indeed reliant upon, circumlocutions, interruptions and seeming conversational culs-de-sac which, in fact, open on to panoramic vistas. Bawdy and profound, when The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman was published in the mid-18th century it changed the story of the novel in English.

Laurence Sterne.

Its author, too, was subject to biographical digressions. Though born in Ireland on 24 November 1713, the career of Laurence Sterne was shaped in York. The great-grandson of the Archbishop of York, Sterne was likewise set to be a clergyman. His father was an army ensign and the family spent Sterne’s childhood moving from barracks to barracks. Aged 10, Laurence was sent to Hipperholme Grammar School in Halifax where a teacher recognised in him ‘a boy of genius’. He was certainly industrious, paying his own school fees in the latter years of his education.

First publications

After graduating from Jesus College, Cambridge, where he read Divinity and the Classics, he returned to Yorkshire and with the help of his uncle, Dr Jacques Sterne, Precentor of York, he embarked upon an ecclesiastical career. He was licensed as assistant curate at Catton and became vicar of Sutton-on-the-Forest in 1738, a position he held for 20 years. During this time, he published two sermons, in 1747 and 1750, as well as a pamphlet, A Political Romance, in 1759. The pamphlet was incendiary, a withering satire on Dr Francis Topham, the leading lawyer of the spiritual courts in York, and the archbishop ordered it to destroyed. But it had demonstrated Sterne’s irrepressible sense of humour and his eye for the absurd, and it was while he was living at Sutton that he began writing the book that was to bring him international, and lasting, acclaim: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.

This was to be a multi-volume book, created piecemeal over an eventual nine volumes, but first Sterne required a publisher. Having sent the manuscript of the first two volumes to the London bookseller R. & J. Dodsley and had them turned down, he took the matter of having them printed into his own hands. The books were printed in York at the premises of the late Caesar Ward, then operated by his widow Anne Ward, at Sterne’s personal expense; he oversaw the printing process. But Sterne, pragmatic, ambitious and alert to the “provincial” reputation of York in comparison to London, where subsequent volumes were printed, omitted from the title page the fact that it was produced in the North. The volumes, in an initial print run of 200, were sold by John Hinxman from his shop in Stonegate in 1759. The building still exists, “At the Sign of the Bible”, now a clothing shop. They quickly sold out, and Sterne saw the story’s potential for a wider, London audience.

Shandy Hall

In 1760 Sterne was granted a new living at St Michael’s Church, Coxwold and there wrote seven further volumes of Tristram Shandy. He lived in the parsonage which he called Shandy Hall in reference to the house in his novel. The church in which Sterne preached dates, like Shandy Hall, to the mid-15th century. He made his mark physically as well as intellectually on the North Yorkshire village, rearranging the pews in order that the congregation ‘face the parson alike’. The improvements he made to the interior, including the pulpit from which he preached, remain today. He was a popular and adroit preacher. A neighbour wrote that ‘the church can scarce contain the number of people that appear every Sunday’. Sterne was also generous, supplying an ox to feed 3,000 people on the occasion of the coronation of George III. The day proceeded in the ‘ringing of bells, squibs and crackers, tar barrels and bonfires, and a ball in the evening’.

“Shandy”, a Yorkshire term for “crack-brained”, could also describe the eccentric parson Sterne. Charismatic, funny and, it would seem, sometimes shocking, he made many friends among neighbours and celebrities alike while, at the same time, disconcerting parishioners with his unpredictable behaviour. It is said that once, en route to delivering a sermon, his spaniel uncovered a flock of partridges. Sterne immediately turned back home for his gun, leaving the bewildered congregation in the dark and only guessing at his whereabouts.

Fame in London

By the time the next volumes of Tristram Shandy were ready to be printed, London was ready to receive them. Printed by James Dodsley, they were sold at his shop in Pall Mall to growing acclaim – and to increasing consternation from the Church. Volumes 3 and 4 of Tristram Shandy enraged the bishops who found in the new Shandy instalments just as much innuendo as in the preceding volumes. But so, too, were new fans converted. William Hogarth himself supplied a frontispiece for the second edition – gratis, it would seem – and Joshua Reynolds painted Sterne regarding the viewer amusedly, wig askew. It was not just society who was charmed; fans brought “Shandeism” into the coffeehouses and on to the streets too. ‘Clock-winding’ took on a new and unrepeatable meaning. Tristram was the fashion. An 18th-century recipe has even emerged for Tristram Shandy soup.

Sterne claimed that he wrote ‘not to be fed, but to be famous’, an inversion of a famous claim by the poet Colley Cibber. Sterne achieved celebrity almost overnight with the publication of the first two volumes of Tristram Shandy. With these, Sterne dismantled the notion of the novel and rebuilt it after his own madcap fashion. Irreverent, full of innuendo and wordplay and unheard-of narrative devices, the novel divided the reading public into pro- and anti-Shandeans. Those who disapproved found the non-linear, endlessly digressive “narrative” beyond frustrating. The novel pokes fun at popular sentimental novels of the day, notably Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and its, as Sterne saw it, fussily overprecise detailing of physical description. Shandeans, on the other hand, could not wait for more. Sterne took advantage of the piecemeal publication of the various volumes of the work to incorporate readers’ responses and even to take on his critics. ‘As we jogg on, either laugh with me, or at me, or in short do any thing – only keep your temper,’ he writes.

As Sterne’s fame grew, society often called him to London; there he befriended, among many other luminaries, the actor David Garrick. They were firm friends enough for Sterne to request of him, and to be granted, personal loans. ‘Dear Garrick,’ he wrote, ‘upon reviewing my finances, this morning, with some unforeseen expences – I find I should set out with 20 pds less – than a prudent man ought – will You lend me twenty pounds.’ However, he still found time to make frequent trips to York, often visiting his friend John Hall-Stevenson at ‘Crazy’ (Skelton) Castle and Stephen Croft in Stillington. His family had been installed in York, too, in a house in Minster Yard: Elizabeth, the somewhat beleaguered wife he had married in 1741, and their surviving daughter, Lydia. The marriage was not happy and Sterne was to fall regularly in love with other women, most significantly with the muse of his last years, Eliza Draper, who appears in his final novel, A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy. On 18 March 1768, Sterne died in a London boarding house, having suffered for 30 years with the devastating symptoms of tuberculosis. Only the first two volumes of A Sentimental Journey had been completed but it proved even more popular than Tristram Shandy.

‘Nothing odd will do long,’ wrote Samuel Johnson in 1776. ‘Tristram Shandy did not last.’ Here, uncharacteristically, Dr Johnson was wrong. The book has never been out of print and has been translated into languages all over the world. Laurence Sterne, an adopted son of Yorkshire, is read and enjoyed by a wide audience 250 years after he first delivered Tristram Shandy for sale in a Stonegate shop.

 

Further reading

Arthur H. Cash, Laurence Sterne, The Early and Middle Years (London, 1975)

Arthur H. Cash, Laurence Sterne, The Later Years (London,1986)

Arthur H. Cash, Laurence Sterne at Shandy Hall (York, 1974)

 

© Laurence Sterne Trust

Shandy Hall, Coxwold, North Yorkshire, the home of Laurence Sterne from 1760 until his death in 1768, was rescued by journalist and broadcaster Kenneth Monkman in the 1960s and is now owned and run by the Laurence Sterne Trust. For further information and opening times.